Wednesday, May 30, 2012

James Bond Was Wrong: A martini manifesto

As published in Ojai Quarterly magazine, Spring 2012.

Photo by Bill Snider
On Sunday evenings, I sit at the kitchen counter while my husband, Bill, whips up an amazing meal (yes, I write about food, but the only thing I can make well is reservations). To keep me out of his way while he cooks, he sets about to prepare my favorite cocktail: a Hendrick’s gin martini served straight up. He knows how to make it better than I do, yet I cannot resist the urge to micro-manage every step of the process.

“Not too much vermouth,” I say as he pours a splash into the glass he’s already chilled.

He turns to me with a poker face and says, “I thought you liked a whole lot of vermouth,” then he promptly empties out all the vermouth, tipping the glass over the sink and shaking it for extra effect to show that he has removed every last drop, leaving the glass with barely a lick.

“Don’t shake it,” I say as he pours the gin into a cocktail shaker full of giant ice cubes. He slowly waves the shaker in front of me while rolling his eyes, the ice quietly clinking the sides of the metal shaker.

“Olive or cucumber?” He knows this is where I get finicky. Hendrick’s is heavy on juniper and coriander as is typical of a fine gin, but it is infused with rose petals and cucumber, which lend a unique floral and crisp herbaceous essence. Some like their martini with a lemon twist, an olive or a cucumber wheel, but on this particular Sunday, I wanted to try it with a local concoction: Katie’s Famous Pickled Romano Beans. The beans are marinated with rosemary and lemon peels and are great in salads, but even better floating in my martini glass.

Fortunately, Bill's not the only mixologist in town who crafts a superb martini. Here are some other local options:

The Village Jester
139 East Ojai Avenue
One place I can count on for the perfect classic martini is the Village Jester, a traditional British pub in downtown Ojai where proprietor Nigel Chisholm knows a thing or two about pouring a proper pint, but he is an absolute savant when it comes to the proper cocktail. Nigel is English, but he does not see eye to eye with his fictional countryman James Bond, who always orders a vodka martini and suavely insists that it be "shaken, not stirred." Nigel agrees that a classic martini is made with gin – not vodka – and should be stirred not shaken otherwise you “bruise” it, which means you stun the liquor by aerating it, causing it to lose the subtle flavor nuances of the gin (and anyone asking for a colder martini is just asking for a weak cocktail watered down with ice water). The other reason I like to belly up to the Jester’s bar is to enjoy the ideal accompaniment to a classic martini: the Jester’s Kitchen Sink Burger. Not for the faint of heart, this third-pound Angus beef burger is piled high with bacon, ham, avocado, cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato and – get this – a fried egg. A handful of onion rings and a pile of French or sweet potato fries will make you swear you will work it off tomorrow (I have been known to substitute a salad for the fries to ease my guilt).

Barrel 33
308  East Ojai Avenue
A cozy downtown wine bar might seem like an unlikely place to come across a classic martini, but once you meet Andrea the bartender, you’ll soon find you’re in exactly the right spot. Andrea knows her gins and vodkas, and shares the most daring twist on the classic martini I’ve seen anywhere. She takes Ketel One vodka (because, she says, it blends extremely well with other liquors), adds a drop or two of Lagavulin – a very peaty and smoky Islay single malt Scotch  gently shakes the two together with ice and strains it into a martini glass with a briny green olive stuffed with bleu cheese. Barrel 33 has a small menu of salads, thin crust pizzas and appetizers, but my favorite to complement this particular martini is the Mediterranean platter, which has hummus, dolmas, herbed feta, baba ghanoush, green and black cured olives, roasted garlic, roasted red pepper strips, and lots of toasted whole grain pita triangles.

Bodee’s Restaurant
3304 Maricopa Highway
Just outside of town and up Highway 33 is a historical gem that dates back to 1947. Outside, a massive wood-burning fireplace warms guests on cool nights, and an impressive oak-covered patio waterscape makes for pleasant al fresco dining in warmer months. Inside, dark wood paneling, comfortable booths and another fireplace create a cozy place to enjoy a cocktail. Our server, Coco, turns on her charm and reveals that some of the organic produce grown on Bodee’s nearby ranch finds its way into the cocktail menu, putting a pleasant spin on the classics. The standouts are a strawberry-jalapeƱo-lime martini made with cucumber vodka, and a cucumber-basil-black pepper martini made with Hendrick’s gin. Bodee’s has a tempting gourmet dinner menu featuring lobster macaroni and cheese, tuna tartare and a duck confit quesadilla, but they are best known for their steaks, and their flame-grilled New York strip pairs beautifully with either of these martinis.

So while James Bond is choking back a bruised, watered-down sorry excuse for a martini, I’ll enjoy mine stirred, not shaken, thank you, with a pickled green bean (thank you, Katie) and a dash of fresh-cracked black pepper (thank you, Coco). How will you have yours?

To learn more about Katie’s pickled treats and jams, visit